Friday, June 28, 2019

FFB: Tears for Jessie Hewitt - Edna Sherry

UK edition (Hodder & Stoughton, 1958)
THE STORY: Con artist and thief Victor Clyde (aka Francis Edwards) sees in Jessie Hewitt an easy mark.  He spots her in a two bit Hollywood cafeteria frequented by movie extras and she is crying over a letter she received. He turns on the charm and within minutes learns her father is dying, she is out of a job and down to her last couple of dollars. Vic is trying to flee California after his latest job which left a man dead from a mortal wound administered by the butt of Vic's pistol. So he wheels and deals and cajoles and flatters Jessie. He convinces her to leave the state with him and he'll take her to visit her dying father. Along the way they get married! But who exactly is conning who here? And will the police catch up with Vic and stop his crime spree by the time he ends up on the East Coast?

THE CHARACTERS: Despite the title Tears for Jessie Hewitt (1958) is really about Vic Clyde and his life as a professional burglar. He has a very specific M.O. He scopes out marks while at racetracks and casinos. He pegs the big winners, follows them to their home and then makes a study of their habits. The next big win at a racetrack Vic makes sure he is in the mark's house in his unusual get-up of industrial coveralls and --absurdly-- a clown Halloween mask. He threatens them with a gun then knocks them out if they refuse to hand over the money.  This has worked swell for him until one of his older marks suffered a severe head wound from being coshed with the gun butt. He later dies in a hospital and that makes Vic guilty of a felony -- murder during the commission of a robbery.

In Jessie he finds his escape and also a possible victim anticipating that she will inherit her father's money from a successful hardware business along with his house and farmland. But when Jessie discovers Vic's burglar outfit and his gun she starts asking a lot of questions. She remembers the news stories of the Band-Aid Burglar too, a name the reporters and police gave to Vic when it was discovered that he used Band-Aids to cover his fingertips rather than wearing gloves which he found made his burglary activity too clumsy. To her amazement Vic confesses everything. Oddly, this draws them closer. Jessie loves him for his honesty and is surprised that she admires him for robbing only from people who win their money from gambling. Both of them rationalize that Vic is not taking anything from his marks that is rightly theirs. Vic is an immense egotist, vain in the extreme and he gets off on her devotion. Plus he needs her home as his haven. He inveigles Jessie into joining him on a racetrack caper. And she loves the excitement. One caper leads to another and soon they are married partners in crime. But the police are hot on Vic's trail for the murder of the man in California. He still sticks to his M.O. in his new digs and this bad decision coupled with the accidental loss of one of his Band-Aids at the scene of a crime will be his undoing.

Jessie has a troubled past that will color and shape everything she does. She tells Vic of that her father was an abusive and sadistic man and still suffers from the aftermath of that abuse. Living in a small town like Cawfrey didn't help matters either where ideal gossip is the mainstay. She couldn't hide her bruises or scars and everyone in town knew that her homelife must have been hell. She sees in Vic her redeemer. His charm, his honesty, his apparent love for her are a godsend and she'll do anything to protect him. This will be her undoing as well. The title is a huge hint that a happy life is not in Jessie's future.

US Paperback (Dell #1004, 1959)
with a very poor alternate title
[But that McGiniss cover sold a lot of books, I'm sure]
Lt. Lance Wiley is Vic's adversary in the novel. His fellow cops like to call him "Wily Wiley" for he has an unusual method to crime solving. He can think like a criminal and he playacts by imagining himself to be his targeted suspect. "Let's jump into Benson's skin for minute," he'll suggest to his sergeant and soon he's launching into a recreation "entering his mind, registering what he would do or not do in any given circumstances." Wiley uses this technique to determine how Vic behaves and thinks while committing his thefts. One thing Wiley is certain of: Vic is not as smart as he thinks he is and that Vic's immense ego is his greatest weakness.

Vic chose as one of his racetrack marks a famous popular composer who is the first victim who isn't threatened by his gun. A struggle takes place in the composer's apartment when Vic tries to rob him of a $10,000 racetrack prize, Vic is struck in the face and his pulls the trigger on his gun. It's his first deliberate murder. The composer's death makes it two murders on his future rap sheet. And the city will be out for blood. Killing a nationally known celebrity with a huge TV following was Vic's biggest mistake.

When Lance Wiley is asked to take part in a televised memorial for the composer he uses the opportunity to talk about the suspect who he assures the public will soon be apprehended. He knows this because the criminal they are tracking is stupid,using that very word. When Vic, ever the vain man eager to hear what the police think of him, hears Wiley call him stupid he transforms from charming con men into raging beast. He plans to strike back at the cop and show him just how clever he really is. That's when Tears for Jessie Hewitt takes a decidedly strange detour morphing into a novel of personal revenge combined with a cat and mouse game between Lt. Wiley and Vic. There won't be many winners in this game.

INNOVATIONS: It was a refreshing change to read a crime novel in which a policeman has a well adjusted and happy life. No abusive alcoholics recovering from a lifetime of unhappy marriages on display here. Lance has a loving wife Meg with a lively sense of humor, and a precocious yet endearing 8 year-old son named Sandy.  Sandy's obsession with spelling complicated words is introduced in an interesting prologue and will come into play later in the book to help his father solve a mystery.

The novel is modeled on inverted detective novels since we know exactly how the crimes are committed and we follow the criminal's point of view for most of the narrative. However the book is not without a smattering of genuine detective work. Sherry's use of the Band-Aid clue is probably the most inventive retro clue in the story recalling similar odd yet innovative clues found in the best detective novels of Golden Age.

US 1st edition (Dodd Mead, 1958)
QUOTES:   Just so I don't ignore the title character (who comes into her own in the final third of the novel), here are key moments that reveal the tragic figure of Jessie Hewitt.

"Yes, I'm sorry for him, Vic. A thing like this could haunt a kid -- darken his whole childhood -- I know what it's like to shiver with fear --and be too little to fight back."

...she was still the "crazy mixed-up kid" who had to be controlled and managed and guided carefully wherever he decided to lead.

Her gratitude, plus her physical feeling for him, was a combination guaranteed to muddle a far cooler head than hers. She was like a hot-rodder without brakes, hurtling downhill.

...in the afternoons they went to the races and he was totally unprepared for the comic resultant development: Jessie became a violent horse fan. The crowds, the high stepping thoroughbreds, the colorful jockey silks, and the recurring climax at the finish of each race intoxicated her.

Rachel still offered as a
shade as late as 1962
THINGS I LEARNED: In addition to wearing Band-Aids on his fingers while carrying out his robberies Vic chooses to make them less noticeable by covering them up with cosmetics. He choose a foundation cream with a rachel color, a term that puzzled me. I fell down a cosmetic rabbit hole in the internet as I learned trivia after trivia about the origins of this shade of make-up. First, for centuries face powder and foundations were made only in three colors; blanche, naturelle, and rachel which are likened to modern day white, pink and cream. Then, rachel (a cream color) apparently gets its name from the 19th century French actress, Élisa Rachel Félix. As I learned from a blog called Cosmetics & Skin: "Rachel was known for her beauty, her clear diction and unexaggerated style of acting making her well suited for a stage with brighter light. Talented and beautiful, she was ideally placed to make the most of the new environment. It is understandable then, that her name might be associated with a beauty product. She was an actress, a beauty, and known throughout Europe." Visit the blog and you too can get a lesson in the history of make-up, French theater, and the marketing of face powders over the decades.

When Vic visits the racetrack for the first time Sherry takes the time to explain the process of parimutuel betting, a system in which bets of a particular type are placed together in a pool and payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets. The fascinating history of the system (also originating from France) can be learned by visiting the betting site Twin Spires.

THE AUTHOR: Edna Solomon Sherry (1885-1967) graduated from Hunter College on Staten Island in 1906 and taught literature there for a while before becoming a full time novelist. She had an interesting early writing career that most people know little about. In the late 1920s she began writing fiction in collaboration with Charles K. Harris. Two of their stories with criminous content were published in pulp magazines in 1927 and 1928.

Serendipitously I also uncovered two novels she wrote with Milton Gropper. Is No One Innocent? (1930), a police procedural mystery, is a novelization of a play she wrote with Gropper titled Inspector Kennedy (1929).  Grounds for Indecency (1931), their second book, published by lowbrow Macaulay sounds like a typical sexploitation novel that was a specialty of that publisher. From the jacket copy:

"Nita... brings the treasure of her beauty and puts it in the scales against her father's debt. One man intervenes not only to save her father but to save her from her own self-sacrifice. But she comes to his apartment against his will to make her payment...."

Sherry's first solo crime novel, and arguably her best known work, Sudden Fear (1948) was adapted into the 1952 movie starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, and the ever fabulous Gloria Grahame. One of the better movies of the last wave of true noir cinema that came out in the 1950s it was nominated for four Academy Awards but won none of them.

In 1909 Edna married Ernest Sherry, a dentist, who was her husband until his death. Tears for Jessie Hewitt is dedicated "To Ernie, with love."

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES - Simon Gale

"By the golden apples of Hesperides!" Simon Gale is one amusingly boisterous detective.

Recently I learned of a trio of books featuring one of Gerald Verner's unusual and least known series detectives, Simon Gale.  The marketing info led me to believe that these were inspired by the books of John Dickson Carr with promises of haunted houses, weird legends, tales of past crimes and a plot similar to those that Harry Stephen Keeler specialized in -- save the wrongly imprisoned person from execution.  While the Carr analogy promised so much the only real thing that Simon Gale has in common with him is his detective's love of beer and the habit of crying out bizarre literary and historical inspired exclamations like "By the seven plagues of Egypt!" and "By the nine lives of Grimalkin!"

To date these are the best mysteries I've read by Verner. Much of their delight and success is due to Simon Gale, a larger than life character who will remind diehard detective fiction fans of other beer guzzling, blustery, and opinionated sleuths like Sir Henry Merrivale and Professor Stubbs. Gale is a professional portrait painter who comes to crime solving by accident.  With only a handful of newsworthy successes Gale has gained a reputation as a criminologist and is more than happy to help when puzzling murders come his way. In his second adventure in crime Sorcerer's House (1956) he encounters a haunted house with an ominous curse. Whenever light appears in the window of Long Room at Threshold House someone will soon will die, usually violently.

Alan Boyce, American publisher, is compelled to investigate during a thunderstorm when a strange light emanates from Threshold House. When he arrive on the scene there are no lights in any windows. But the body of Paul Meriton is found just below Long Room. It appears he has either fallen or jumped from the window.  Perhaps he was pushed? But there is no sign of anyone having been in the house other than Meriton and Boyce. Gale steps in immediately examining the scene personally and starts with prying questions that soon reveal the complicated relationship of Meriton and his wife Fay who supposedly left him for another man but seems to have utterly vanished. There are whispers of mental illness, insanity and hints of murder in Fay's past. Gale is determined to find her and get at the truth, put an end to rumors and learn whether or not she is responsible for not only the death of her husband but two other people as well.

Verner excels at creating a creepy Gothic atmosphere and draws from the conventions of Gothic literature in this detective novel. Tension is relieved by the frequent humorous bouts of beer drinking and the litany of Gale's odd exclamations recalling Dr. Fell's "Archons of Athens!" Unfortunately, once again his plot gets away from him and his attempts at misdirection misfire when he shows his hand too many times. A last minute effort to bamboozle the reader fails miserably and astute readers may find themselves recalling a moment in the early pages during the discovery of Meriton's body that stood out like a sore thumb.  The resolution comes as an anticlimax and makes this second effort the weaker of the two.

Much more successful is Noose for a Lady (1952), Gale's actual debut as a detective. Here Gale is asked to look into the case of Margaret Hallam in prison for poisoning her husband and about to be executed in only a few days. He must race against the clock and sort out who among the seven suspects was the truly guilty party.

Every one of the suspects has a secret involving a crime of some sort. Gale meets up with Mrs. Barrett, the Hallam housekeeper; Miss Ginch, a spiteful church lady; Mr Upcott, an effeminate collector of rare china; Major Ferguson, the typical ex-solider; Mrs. Langdon-Humpreys an archetype of the imperious harridan and her niece Vanessa; and Dr. Evershed, the usual local physician who turns up in these village mysteries. The story begins to resemble a sort of homage to And Then There Were None with each secret revealing each of the seven suspects to be more vile and odious than the preceding one interviewed. Among the crimes are murder, mass slaughter during war, negligence leading to a suicide, out of wedlock childbirth and other social "horrors" of the era. But who among these people felt it necessary to poison John Hallam, a sadistic man who collected books on torture and cruelty, and who also dabbled in blackmail?  Gale aptly sums up this lurid case: "Murder's a queer thing. It's like suddenly turning on a bright light in an old, damp cellar. All kinds of nasty, crawling things go scuttling away to their holes to get out of the glare."

There are at least two well executed shocking surprises before we reach the truth behind Hallam's poisoning murder. The story is an exciting one what with all the secrets being uncovered and the twist before the denouement is actually the most interesting and unexpected part of the book. Yet again I have to admit that Verner has let me down in the end. The ending is histrionic in the extreme, the murderer is ludicrously far-fetched and makes the entire story seem preposterous. Too much is explained away as madness as it is in Sorcerer's House and it is a disappointing finale to an otherwise genuinely fascinating and well constructed detective novel.

Noose for a Lady had an interesting previous incarnation and later life besides being a novel. According to Chris Verner, the author's son, it was first written for radio and later was adapted in a  faithful movie version. The movie poster appears above as it was adapted for the DVD case. John Grant of the Noirish movie blog has reviewed the movie in his usual perspicacious and informative style. However, I don't suggest you read it until after you read the book or see the movie as he gives away several plot elements better left unsaid.

There is a third and final book (The Snark was a Boojum) which I have not purchased nor read.  That last book in the Simon Gale trilogy was unfinished when Gerald Verner died in 1980 and his son has completed it. It was published for the first time by Ramble House a few years ago is is available for sale along with the two other books offered by Endeavor Books in both paperback and digital editions.

Simon Gale is one of the best of Verner's many series detectives. He's colorful, keen eyed and sharp witted, often providing riotously funny laugh-out-loud moments amid the eerie luridness that pervades his investigations. Despite Verner's flaws in plotting and his penchant for high melodrama and operatic displays of villainy in the final pages I highly recommend these two books for anyone unfamiliar with his work. They are most definitely the best of the Gerald Verner mysteries I've read as far as character, atmosphere and detective elements with Noose for A Lady ranking slightly higher than Sorcerer's House in terms of "bang for your buck" mystery quality.

"By the cloven hoofs of Pan!" What are you waiting for? Go buy a copy of one of these books.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

MOONLIGHTERS: Dulcie Gray, Actress & Mystery Writer

This is my inaugural post for a new feature on people who wrote mysteries who were primarily known for a completely different profession. We'll be looking at mainstream novelists, academics, performers, journalists, and a music magazine editor. To start us off I chose Dulcie Gray, stage, TV and movie actress, who was married to Michael Denison, also an actor with whom she often appeared.

Gray's first mystery novel, Murder on the Stairs (1957) is a homage to the old dark house thrillers and draws on traditional detective novel motifs like a bitter family at each other's throats and action confined to an old family estate. Unlike the novels which obviously inspired her Gray experiments with narrative techniques.

Divided into three separate sections we get the point of view first from an ostensible victim, Mary Howard, who we soon learn has been leading us on in her first person narrative. Part two changes narration to third person and we see everyone’s reactions to Mrs Howard’s seeming paranoia and learn that several people may want her dead. We also discover her husband died under suspicious circumstances.  In part three we have yet one more change in point of view when  Dr. Bradley takes over the story as an amateur detective with the added unusual twist of two people who take turns presenting their solutions to Mrs Howard’s murder.  Murder on the Stairs reminded me most of the work of Christianna Brand whose mystery novels also tend to be populated with embittered families, display a sardonic wit, and contain -- her trademark -- multiple solutions to the mysteries.

The difference is that Gray aspires to achieve the plotting techniques and sparkling wit of Brand but falls short of the mar;k. Her dialogue is bitchy and catty reminiscent of the kind of thing that Gray herself must've uttered in many stage melodramas. Her plotting is not as clever and her clueing is weak when it is present. Murder on the Stairs has one intriguing element that made me hope that she was writing a send-up of Murder on the Orient Express. At one point in the second half we discover that three couples (two sets of husband/wife and a duo of female friends) are planning to kill Mrs. Howard. I was hoping that all three couples would pull off each attempt on her life and it would be up to the survivors (and of course the reader) to figure out which murder plan succeeded and who was responsible. However, all hopes were dashed when the murder occurs and it is ineptly pulled off. The cover illustration of the paperback edition I own depicts the crime. The illustration is purposefully misleading but I'll say no more.

I read only one other book -- Epitaph for a Dead Actor (1960), her fourth novel -- but it too suffer from stilted dialogue (especially when the characters express their love for one another) and tired plot elements seen before in the hand of more accomplished writers. I plodded on through the tiresome opening which focused on Louise Ferrar and her relationships with a TV director (called a producer during this era) and her current paramour to make it to the murder of a loathsome womanizing actor who is playing the male lead in a vehicle produced and written for Louise to star in. When he is killed the live broadcast is cancelled and his life is revealed in all its lurid detail. We learn he has been married multiple times and fathered a child out of wedlock, as they used to say.  The more the police uncover the more we learn that Robert Strang has exploited women vilely. His big secret which serves as the motive for the crime is something pulled from the pages of  Victorian sensation novels. I won't mention it but you can easily guess from that obvious hint.

The women characters (apart from boring Louise) are the only thing that held my interest. There is a conspiracy of sorts, a bit of ugly blackmail, and once again some false confessions and therefore alternate solutions to Strang's murder. But in the end there is nothing clever here, all of it so very familiar, the old hat dialogue that seems lifted from a 1940s melodrama is completely inappropriate for a novel written in 1960. Not even the backstage look at how a TV show is put together and rehearsed was enlightening. The setting which has a kind of John Dickson Carr importance in how the architecture and layout make it difficult for people to be seen from certain angles is not handled very well either.

All of the characters (even young Anita Weston, who appears all too briefly yet has perhaps the best written scene in the entire book) seem to be living in an England that died decades before the action takes place. Even the teleplay the actors are rehearsing, called The Schoolmistress, has a hoary plot reminiscent of a script pulled out of a dusty trunk left in someone's attic filled with Edwardian and Victorian memorabilia.

Even when she tries to add some excitement to the book Gray falls into cliche traps. When John Foster, the TV director, turns amateur sleuth the villain in a sort of disguise kidnaps him and locks him in an abandoned warehouse to prevent him from getting too close to the answer. The sequence filled with ludicrous touches just seems stupid in the context of the rest of the book and completely out of character for who the villain turns out to be. Foster spends 48 hours trying to find a way out of his prison and it's all so ridiculously contrived. He can't smash the window and crawl out because Gray invents reasons to prevent that. Instead he accidentally finds a hidden trapdoor that leads to a cellar that then leads to another exit! The whole sequence spread out over three chapters wouldn't pass muster in a boy's adventure book.

One plus for this book: a really cool plan of the murder scene appears on the final page. (see below) Why it wasn't placed at the front of the book eludes me. Thankfully, there's a footnote to draw the reader's attention to its odd placement.


I can imagine that some actors would find their talent in creating and inhabiting characters to be an advantage in writing fiction. After all writing novels and playing a part have very similar artistic skills involved. I think in the case with Gray, she found herself heavily influenced by the dialogue of stage and screen rather than drawing from life.  Her worst fault (clearly stemming from her stage career) is her fondness for lengthy monologues. Everyone talks endlessly and melodramatically. My favorite phrase that occurs in both books I read is when any man gets angry at a policeman and feels personally insulted he exclaims, "Damn your eyes!"  Gray's characters don't behave like real people most of the time and they often sound like they are on a stage entertaining a matinee of blue haired biddies.

Michael Denison & Dulcie Gray, 1951
Dulcie Gray (1915-2011) was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where her father was a judge. She was sent to boarding school in England and returned to Malaysia in 1931. According to one of her autobiographies she ran away from home, managed passage on a cargo ship bound for England and got a job as a governess. In 1938 she gained admittance to Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts where she met her husband, Michael Denison. She had a long career on stage, movies and television. On stage she frequently appeared opposite her husband and she co-starred with him in a few movies.

I watched one of her earliest parts as a housemaid in a mediocre melodrama about a haunted house, A Place of One's Own (1945) starring James Mason, one of the many "Gainsborough melodramas" she appeared in while under contract to that movie studio. I also caught her in a few scenes opposite Denison in perhaps her best known movie, The Franchise Affair (1951) based on Josephine Tey's crime novel. Watching her on screen sort of explains the kinds of books she wrote. She is capable but lacks fire. When called on to perform a character part like the giddy maid she relies on silly stereotypical behaviors. Apparently she was well loved on TV in her late career weh she had to play old matrons. She had a recurring role on an UK TV series called Howard's Way in the late 1980s and also turned up in an episode of Partners in Crime, the 1983 adaptation of Christie's Tommy & Tuppence book starring Francesca Annis and James Warwick.

In addition to her over twenty crime novels she wrote a number of ghost and supernatural stories (many of them found in the Pan Book of Horror anthologies), a couple of theater memoirs and a book on butterflies that draws upon her lifelong hobby of lepidoptery and her noteworthy charitable work as a member of the British Butterfly Conservation Society.

Sorry to say that these two mediocre efforts do not bode well for Dulcie Gray as a mystery writer. I won't be reading any of her other eighteen novels. I will say that her publishers had some talented artists working for them and her books certainly look enticing even if they most likely will not live up to the dramatic cover illustrations. If anyone else has read her other books and had a different opinion on her writing I welcome your comments below.




Next week - a literature professor who chose as his pen name the name of a Elizabethan playwright known for a single landmark bloody revenge tragedy. His books were much more promising. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 21, 2019

FFB: Seven Clues in Search of a Crime - Bruce Graeme

THE STORY: Unwittingly while riding his bicycle home from his bookshop and lending library in Bray-in-the-Marsh Theodore Terhune foils an attack on Helen Armstrong. A group of men were after something in her handbag. Over the next couple of weeks Terhune ferrets out information from Helen and her employer Lady Kathleen Kylstone and uncovers seven clues that lead to one large crime that has its origins in the secret past of two families.

THE CHARACTERS: Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941) marks the first appearance of bookseller and accidental detective Theodore I. Terhune. An avid detective fiction reader Terhune has aspirations to become a writer of mystery novels. He has already penned a few stories that were published in Saturday Evening Post. His run-in with Helen and the assault that followed awakens in him an innate talent for detective work. Soon the two learn that the men were after a key that Lady Kylstone had entrusted to Helen. The key had slipped into the torn lining of her handbag and went undiscovered by the thieves. Lady Kylstone then reveals that the key opens the family burial vault and there is an annual ritual surrounding the vault. Every year on October 25 (the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt) the vault is decorated with flowers and opened to the public in honor of the Kylstone ancestors who fought in the battle. Terhune is certain that there is something in the vault that the thieves are after. That night someone breaks into the Kylstone home and steals the key from Helen's handbag. But why bother with going to such lengths to steal the key when in only one day it will be October 25 and the vault will be opened to the public? Theodore's curiosity is piqued and he cannot stop prying and investigating until he knows the answer.

News of his accidental heroism makes its way through the town and in a matter of days everyone is talking about "Detective" Terhune and his exploits. Alicia MacMunn is so entranced by the story of his thwarting of the thieves that she consults with Terhune to solve a mystery of her own. At an impromptu dinner party attended by Mrs. MacMunn, her daughter Julia, and friend Geoffrey Belcher Terhune hears the story of Mrs. MacMunn's bookloving father who was researching the genealogy and heraldic history of Bray-in-the-Marsh's noteworthy citizens. But a few months ago his impressive handmade history was vandalized. Someone stole the first 50 pages (consisting of family names ending in A through D) of the manuscript. Mrs. MacMunn would like Terhune to find out why and if he can to recover those pages.

Of course the thefts of the vault key and manuscript pages will eventually tie together in one of the most outrageously complex stories. Terhune's adventure will involve a trip to New York City and Albany, a professional criminal for hire, attempted murder on board a passenger ship, a mystery woman nicknamed "Blondie", an automobile accident that kills four people, and learning the true identity of a salesman who worked for a tire manufacturing company.

Apart from Terhune, Helen and Lady Kylstone -- our trio of heroes -- the story is populated with a large cast of stimulating characters. As with the best of these type of adventure-quest styled detective stories everyone Terhune meets in his travels has a noteworthy scene. A man with a scar who seems to be following Terhune will turn out to be not a villain but an ally while the tart-tongued cocktail guzzling vixen Julia MacMunn who at first Terhune dislikes intensely will prove to be one of the most resourceful and compassionate people he meets.Other notable characters include Det-Insp. John Henry Sampson who enlists Terhune as his unofficial assistant when he sees Terhune has an innate talent for police work and encourages him to delve further; Lt. Kraszewski who has two brief but excellent scenes in the NYC section; and Mr. Ramsay, Margaret Ramsey's father, who has quite a tale to tell that will provide Terhune with lots to mull over on his way back to England.

INNOVATIONS: The entire novel is one of Bruce Graeme's trademark experiments in narrative. Rather than following the standard formula of a traditional detective novel presenting the reader with a crime and having the detective sift through evidence and question suspects Terhune encounters a series of mysterious events that indicate a crime about to happen. Each new adventure leads him to one more clue to the true crime at the heart of all the various mysteries. Among the seven clues of the title are a gold fountain pen with a strange insignia, a cablegram from New York, a piece of paper with the name Blondie and an address, a statue of Mercury, and the intriguing life of Margaret Ramsey, Mr. MacMunn's secretary who moved to New York.

The book is an excellent example of a genre blending crime novel that mixes adventure thriller, quest story, detective novel and satire of English village life into one highly entertaining read. Graeme has a wicked sense of humor and the caustic wit that makes up most of the dialogue is a highlight. The dinner party, for example, during which Terhune learns of the manuscript and the missing pages is one of the funniest scenes in the book what with all the jibing and banter between bitchy Julia, her easily ruffled mother and sarcastic Geoffrey Belcher. Imperious and no-nonsense Lady Kylstone (who is also an American) has some great lines, too. Graeme's mature women characters reminded me of the matriarchs and doyennes of Rufus King whose older women suffer no fools gladly and speak their minds with blunt honesty.

QUOTES: Lady Kylstone: "Diana Pearson would prove a better source for information of that nature. She is a born osteologist where the metaphorical skeletons of the cupboard type are concerned."

Arnold Blye to superficial Julia MacMunn: "I thought you hated books. What are you looking for? A book on cocktails?"

THINGS I LEARNED: This is one of the rare bibliomysteries in which books are talked of with reverence and displays the author's knowledge and love of books of all genres, but in particular detective and mystery fiction. Among the names dropped throughout the story are Dennis Wheatley, Leslie Charteris, Frank Packard, Peter Cheyney, Lawrence Meynell, Edgar Wallace, and Philip Gibbs who was mainstream but who I know wrote two novels with supernatural themes. Every now and then a name cropped up that I didn't recognize like Ursula Bloom, who after I trolled the internet for info I learned is the most prolific woman writer of the 20th century with approximately 560 works to her name and a handful of pseudonyms she used. One book discussed intriguingly was the bestseller of 1940 I Bought a Mountain. This is a memoir written by 21 year-old Canadian born Thomas Firbank describing how he bought a house and land in Wales and became a sheep farmer. It sold thousands of copies all over the world and supposedly made Wales a dream destination for anyone looking for the "good and simple life" that Firbank extolled so beautifully in his book.

THE AUTHOR: Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982), better known as Bruce Graeme, also wrote under the pseudonyms David Graeme (claiming he was Bruce's cousin), Peter Bourne, Jeffrey Montague, Fielding Hope and Roderic Hastings. He was astonishingly prolific in crime and adventure fiction writing exactly 100 hundred books and created, in addition to Terhune, five other series characters:  Supt. William Stevens, Inspector Allain of the Sûreté, Det. Sgt. Robert Mathers, Inspector Auguste Jantry, and -- the character he is probably best known for -- Richard Verrell, alias "Blackshirt," a professional thief who becomes a successful crime novelist. Prior to turning to full time novel writing Jeffries was part of the Westminster Rifles during WW1 and worked as both a reporter and a movie producer. His son Roderick Jeffries was also a mystery writer who as "Roderic Graeme" continued the Blackshirt novels before writing crime and suspense fiction under his own name.

EASY TO FIND? Well, what do you know? As of this writing there are absolutely zero copies of Seven Clues... available for sale from the usual online bookselling sites I regularly check on. But don't let that stop you. Worldcat.org tells me that there are two copies held in prominent US university libraries and four copies in UK and Irish libraries. Get a copy via interlibrary loan, why doncha? This is one of the most entertaining crime novels I've read this year. Had I the money I'd reprint this one in a pinch.

Theodore I. Terhune Detective Novels
Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941)
House with Crooked Walls (1942)
A Case for Solomon (1943)
Work for the Hangman (1944)
Ten Trails to Tyburn (1944)
A Case of Books (19460
And a Bottle of Rum (1949)
Dead Pigs at Hungry Farm (1951)

Please note that this list is the only accurate listing of Theodore Terhune books on the web. Elsewhere you will find lists with missing titles that do feature Terhune or incorrect books listed that feature a detective character other than Terhune.

Friday, June 14, 2019

FFB: The Sealed Room Murder - Michael Crombie

THE STORY: Murderous uncle Godfrey Winter does in his snooping nephew Eric and makes it look like natural causes. The victim’s sister suspects foul play and writes a letter to her brother’s friend en route to England from Shanghai. But the uncle learns of his niece’s prying and tries to kill her as well. Friend Alan Napier and reporter Larry Milner arrive in the nick of time to rescue her from the clutches of nasty Uncle Godfrey. Milner is determined to prove that Eric Winter’s death is murder and get the story of a lifetime. He turns amateur sleuth but his hijinks only lead to Uncle Godfrey increasing the stakes. Larry’s detective work may prove deadly for all involved.

THE CHARACTERS: How many novels have I read about the wicked uncle doing in his innocent heirs? This motif dates back to the Gothic novels of the 18th century and probably all the way back to the folk tales and fairy tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. In the hands of Michael Crombie (aka James Ronald, one of my favorite crime fiction writers) The Sealed Room Murder (1934) as much as it revisits well-worn territory seems fresh and invigorating thanks to his breezy style, good humor and penchant for action-filled sequences. There’s never a dull moment here.

Patricia Winter plays her part as the damsel in distress without ever resorting to melodramatic hysterics. Alan Napier is your typical hero too prone to the “falling in love at first sight” syndrome, or in his case falling in love at first hearing since her knows nothing of Patricia except what his friend Eric has told him. He has never even seen a photo of her. His first meeting with her is in the letter Patricia writes him that he receives just as the ship pulls into harbor in England.

Like so many detective novels of the 1930s we have another reporter turned sleuth in Larry Milner. And like so many of his kind he is smarter and more resourceful than the police. He is clearly a clone of Ronald’s other reporter/detective Julian Mendoza. The only difference is Larry is younger and more physically fit than the permanently disabled Mendoza who must walk with the use of a cane. Larry also tends to work solo; he has no cadre of reporter colleagues upon whom he can rely to impersonate policemen and bodyguards. In fact he gets fired by his editor for intruding into a police investigation and refusing to stick to his assigned duties. Larry is determined to show up not only his former co-workers, many of whom he holds in contempt, by getting the scoop of his lifetime when he exposes Godfrey Winter as a murderer of the worst kind.

Complicating the plot is Winter’s nosey chauffeur who has retained incriminating evidence related to the car accident that nearly kills Patricia. Surreptitiously he takes photos of sabotage done to the car before the wreck. He later turns blackmailer with dreams of a farm in Kenya and £2000 of hush money to help him realize his African retreat.

Ronald makes good use of all his characters, even the most minor like the chauffeur and a teenage boy who after helping Larry and receiving a compliment for his cleverness decides to turn boy sleuth. The boy hopes to gather more information and get a “big scoop” of his own that will reward him with not just compliments but a pocketful of shillings from the reporter. All the characters have fully realized lives and we are privy to their thoughts, dreams and desires. More importantly, everyone has their time to be noticed and often take center stage for that brief shining moment.

To my mind this is the best kind of popular fiction writing. Every character introduced should serve a vital purpose in the story. Ronald knows this too and his books are all the better for that knowledge.

INNOVATIONS: The Sealed Room Murder is non-stop entertainment, a lively thriller told in the inverted detective style. Knowing that Godfrey is the villain from the start, however, does not diminish any thrills or suspense. The book is loaded with action and incident. There are plenty of unexpected events and shifts in tone and narrative. But perhaps the most unusual part of the book is that the murder that gives the book its title does not occur until the last quarter of the story. There are several deaths and a few murders, but the only locked room murder is of a character who may be the least noticed of the entire cast.

When this murder occurs it is a stabbing death in room with a door locked from the inside and a window that is locked with a “burglar catch.” The solution to the locked room is a baroque one to be sure with only few clues given and requiring some truly abstract thinking to figure it out. So puzzled is Larry that he consults with mystery writers to help yet none of them can provide him with an answer. He turns to a stage magician named Vantelli as well but also gets little help. Only when he builds a model of the room and examines it thoroughly does he get a literal breakthrough. After his frustrating study of the model and perusing he notes that result in nothing useful Larry in a rage throws the model at a window in his apartment drawing attention from the landlady who scolds him for the damage he has caused. Only then does the truth dawn on him.

THE AUTHOR: As “Michael Crombie” James Ronald wrote seven novels. A handful of copies of four titles turn up for sale at outrageous prices, while the other three are so absurdly rare that only one copy each is held in the British Library. Only The Frightened Lady features a series detective (Julian Mendoza, of course) but this really doesn’t count as it is a rewrite of his first mystery Cross Marks the Spot which already had Mendoza as the protagonist detective.

I’ve learned some additional information on James Ronald from Jamie Sturgeon, a British bookseller who I deal with frequently. He told me that he uncovered some newspaper articles that reported Ronald had been deported in 1955 because of money owing to New York State. Ronald also apparently unofficially adopted a boy.

Michael Crombie Crime Novels
The Awakening of Theodore Wrenn (1934)
The Sealed Room Murder (1934)
The Gentleman Crook (1935)
The House of Horror (1935)
Murder!!! (1935)
Life Must Go On (1936)
The Frightened Girl (1941) - US only




Sunday, June 9, 2019

LEFT INSIDE: North Western Road Car Company Bus Ticket, 1934

I was pleasantly surprised when this bit of pasteboard appeared in the final pages of a 1934 murder mystery I recently finished reading. Because coming across it told me that this book most likely has not been read or opened since this bus ride!

On the left is a photo of both sides of a bus ticket printed by the North Western Road Car Company, a transportation company started in 1923 and originally based in Stockport, England. In its final three decades the company had moved headquarters to Liverpool. From 1923 to 1986 NWRC operated bus services in the counties of Cheshire, Lancashire, West Riding of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The bus company’s entire history including its many mergers and acquisitions of other transportation services over its 60+ years is outlined – where else? – on a Wikipedia page here.

In comparing this ticket against dozens of images of similar bus tickets from the North Western Road Co. I discovered that this was the earliest of them all. All I had to do was look at the cheapest fare price (1 penny). On other tickets the lowest fare one could pay was no less than 3 pence. So I’m certain that this ticket dates to the mid-1930s (no earlier than 1934 the book’s publication year) The other tickets I looked at had years on from the World War 2 era.

Close study shows the date this particular ticket was purchased and the fare paid. We know that the ticket was purchased on August 7 (see right side of photo) and I think the 4 punched at the very top indicates 1934. The rider also paid a "Workman" fare meaning, I assume, that he was a daily commuter going to or coming from his place of employment. Reading the fine print instructions reveals that the number above the cut off portion was the fare paid.  This "Workman" fare was 1/2 or 1 shilling, 2 pence.

This particular ticketing system was developed by the Willebrew company. I found several websites devoted to the history of transportation in the UK and the best designed and most informative was Bob Mockford’s site which includes loads of fascinating info in his “Bus Museum” section.

Here is a verbatim section taken from that site describing how the Willebrew ticketing system worked:

The Willebrew machine used pre-printed tickets. Unlike the earlier punches, these tickets had a large number of fare options on each ticket. This meant fewer tickets for the conductor to carry.


Willebrew model #10288
photo from Bob-Mockford.co.uk
The conductor selected the ticket, inserted it into the machine and cut off a section up to the fare paid. This section was retained inside the machine and the remainder handed to the passenger.
The conductor did not know the value of tickets issued. This would be calculated later in the office, preventing the conductor from taking any surplus cash.

The Willebrew is opened by inserting a small screwdriver into a hole in the bottom of the machine, pressing the spring-loaded catch inside and pulling the cover downwards. It is not necessary to completely remove the cover as shown in the photo, in fact it is better not to as holding down the catch while re-inserting the cover is difficult.

Once opened, a clerk in the office would remove the pieces of ticket to calculate the takings.

A review of the book -- The Sealed Room Mystery -- in which I discovered this bit of paper is coming up soon

Friday, June 7, 2019

FFB: Wishes Limited - W. A. Darlington

THE STORY: A little bit of Cinderella, a dash of Kafka, and a whole lot of lampooning the publishing world await you in Wishes Limited (1922). The novel begins as a bizarre fairy tale, tosses in a ludicrous parody of "The Metamorph-osis", but turns out to be an often hilarious satire about the creation, publication and public reception of a ribald bestselling novel.

THE CHARACTERS:  John Benstead, burgeoning novelist whose only work so far have been stories and vignettes, is eager to marry Beth, his longtime girlfriend.  To his shock she refuses his ardent proposal. She much prefers to wait until both have enough money to live on.  After some cajoling and begging Beth somewhat begrudgingly agrees to a pact with John -- she will leave him alone for one month and if he can write his first novel, get it published and make enough money she vows to accept his marriage proposal. John immediately sets to work, struggling with ideas for a comic romance modeled on his own failed engagement.  After multiple starts and stops and mountains of crumpled and torn up paper he wishes for help and poof -- or rather CRASH! -- his fairy godmother Florinelle appears direct from the ceiling.

Florinelle is far from your average fairy godmother.  For one she's looks about sixteen years old, much younger than 27 year-old John. She arrives costumed stylishly -- a short yellow flapper dress "cut low at the neck," "extremely high heeled shoes, a floppy black hat" and carries instead of a magic wand "a brilliant sunshade." For another she's plagued with labor problems. It seems that the fairy world has been overrun with union rules and the djinns and other fairy creatures who do all the real magical work are unhappy and are threatening to strike. She has been hard at work trying to appease them. But she heard John's plea for help and will do her best to fulfill his dreams. Then she begins to outline the rules: only one wish every 30 days, wishes are limited to twelve words and no more ("Oh! like a telegram, " says John), and Rule 7 (one of the least favorite mortals like to hear) no wishes for money or jewels. She needs John to make his wish soon as she's on the Conciliation Committee and they're very busy and she needs to get back to avert the impending strike. And so John carefully words his wish to be a bestselling novelist and Florinelle waves her sunshade and it's done. John finds it hard to believe it was so instantaneous, but keeps his mouth shut.

Possible colleague of Florinelle? John's fairy
has blond plaits and shuns cigarettes
(illustration by Lewis Baumer)
As she is about to leave Florinelle lets John know that she had to turn his next door neighbor into a black beetle because he frightened her as she appeared through the wall of his apartment on the way into John's home. John is concerned and pleads with her to turn him back into a man. But she reminds him of Rule 19 - one wish per 30 days -- and says he'll have to wait until next month. Then as abruptly as she arrived Florinelle vanishes. We don't hear from her again for many pages. Upon her exit havoc ensues.

The novel Hidden Souls appears in bookstores overnight, becomes all the rage but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of the harmless comic romance John planned on the book is a tawdry potboiler, with several racy scenes, and lots of shocking language. It horrifies John that his name is on the front cover.  As if that isn't enough to deal with he finds himself entrusted with the care of Mr. Spalding (now a black beetle) and he carries his neighbor everywhere in a small box, always looking for a safe place to stow him and spending too much time consulting with his friends on the proper diet for a black beetle.  Needless to say his friends and relatives don't think much of John's sudden transformation into a "modern" writer indulging in eccentricities like taking up with strange insect pets. John somehow manages to keep Mr. Spalding safe from harm despite many close calls with insecticide, household pets and overfeeding with grease and bad greens.

The whole novel has a raucous Wodehousian feel, the humor is both witty and ridiculous. John has an aristocratic male confidante, there are old biddies and matriarchs on nearly every page expressing their outrage about Hidden Souls, saucy servants talk back, a couple of ivy-covered professors including a confused entomologist pontificate, and Beth who wants to believe John's outrageous tale grows impatient with his excuses for why she must wait a full month for genuine proof of magical events. Darlington balances all his farcical elements with some trenchant attacks on the world of bestsellers, the hazards of becoming an instant sensation, and the wild fancies of rabid fans of pop lit.

I was especially pleased when Darlington added a final twist in the climax involving the magical transformation of Mr. Spalding's return to human form. John's ingenious plan backfires and he is accused of a crime leading to a farcical courtroom scene that British writers always seem to excel in.

QUOTES:  Rose, the second housemaid, appeared in the doorway. She was a rural product, with robust health and limitless amiability which accompany complete lack of brain.

He felt an outcast. He would have felt a pariah, if he had been quite certain how to pronounce it.

"Please!" she said, putting her whole soul and about seventeen E's into the word.

It is not easy to know how to begin a conversation with a lady upon whom, last time you saw her, you committed assault and battery. The books of etiquette, which overflow with advice on How to Eat Asparagus and Remain a Gentleman, What to Do with Your Cherry-stones, or the Correct Form of Address to the Wife of a Rural Dean, are silent upon such problems of everyday life as this.

THINGS I LEARNED: When John misplaces Mr. Spalding early in the book he asks his landlady if she has seen any black beetles around.  She replies that there is one but "he's that artful you wouldn't believe." She puts down Keating's everywhere but the bug "goes around it as clever as a Christian."  I figured this was some form of insecticide. And it was. A very popular one as it turns out with some hysterical looking advertisements like the one shown at right.

John takes Beth to Coldstream for their honeymoon. "You know, where the Guards come from." John's noted to have been a former rugby player back in his university days and I thought he meant the Coldstream Guards were an athletic team. But no, he means "the oldest regiment in the British Regular Army in continuous active service" as the Guards state on their own website. The group date back to the days of Cromwell when it was known as Monck's Regiment and was based in Coldstream, Scotland. Only after George Monck's death did the Regiment become known as Coldstream Guards.

W. A. Darlington by Lafayette (14 August 1928)
courtesy of National Portrait Gallery website
THE AUTHOR: William Aubrey Cecil Darlington (1890-1979) was primarily known for being the leading theater critic for Daily Telegraph during the 1920s.  He also served a stint as London Drama Corespondent for the New York Times. In addition to his criticism and theater writing he penned four comic fantasy novels, the most successful being Alf's Button (1919) which tells the story of a soldier who inadvertently releases a genie (or djinn as Darlington prefers) when he rubs one of his uniform buttons. He later discovers the button was manufactured from scrap metal that originally was an ancient Arabian lamp. Alf's Button was subsequently turned into a hit stage play and was filmed three separate times in 1920, 1930 and 1938, this last version starred Alistair Sim as the Genie and a group of comedians known as "the Crazy Gang" as the soldiers. Thanks to those extremely popular adaptations the book remained in print for close to four decades. The latest edition I uncovered was dated 1956. A less popular sequel appeared in 1928 called Alf's Carpet which I will be reviewing later this year.

Among Darlington's extensive non-fiction works are The Actor and His Audience (1949) and Through the Fourth Wall (1920), a collection of essays on theater, performance, and remembrances on actors and actresses of the early 20th century, all of which first appeared in Daily Telegraph. He also wrote biographies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1933) #15 in Great Lives; J. M. Barrie (1938) and Laurence Olivier (1968), more an appreciation of Olivier's movie acting, published as part of "Great Contemporaries", and only 92 pages.

EASY TO FIND? As of this writing there are exactly four copies of Wishes Limited offered for sale. There is only one hardcover edition and no other English language edition at all. None of the copies offered come with a dust jacket which frustrates me because the other DJs of Darlington's works are attractively designed and illustrated (see photo at right). Like many of Herbert Jenkins' books the front board is stamped with a cartoon illustration. In this case it appears to be a gigantic version of Mr. Spalding in beetle form chasing poor John. But such a scene never occurs in the book. The beetle remains regular sized throughout the story.